Work on omissions and the structures of agency

A regulative theory of basic intentional omissions

(2021, forthcoming, Synthese)

As part of the folk picture of agency, we seem to believe that human agents have basic agency over some of their omissions.

Consider the following example. Sally, a lifelong supporter of the Republican party, has been outraged by the recent comments of some Republicans and the silence of others. After deliberating, she resolves never to support the Republican party again, even though she continues to endorse many of its policies and feels sympathy for some of its officials, and even though she anticipates pressure from family and friends who used to share her politics. Her deliberation led Sally to an intention to omit voting for Republicans, contributing to Republican campaigns, etc. She did not decide whether to support any other party or whom to vote for. She did not decide on any means to resist inclinations, overtures and pressures to vote Republican. She just settled on a pattern of omission. A few years later, having held onto her resolution, Sally treats her lack of support for the Republican party as an intentional achievement. She intentionally never supported Republicans over the past few years. She thinks that her omission was the result of her following through on her resolution. When asked why she does not support Republicans, she answers with her resolution and its justification: she explains her omission in terms of the reasons that motivated her. In other words, Sally treats her omission as an intentional achievement responsive to her intentions and reasons. Third-personal observers who know her take the same stance. They treat her omission in much the same way they treat many of her actions. They treat her omission as a manifestation of her agency. What is more, Sally did not perform actions (or series of actions) that would account for this manifestation of her agency. She acted neither to ensure, nor to allow, nor to find an alternative to her voting Republican. Her omission was basic.

What is the relation between an agent and her basic intentional omissions? How does Sally carry out her resolution? How does her intention govern her behavior? Why is her omission an achievement? What explains its intentional character? Why did she omit because of her intention and the reasons behind it? In light of our answers to these questions, should Sally’s omission really count as a manifestation of her agency?

The purpose of the paper is to introduce a new answer to these questions. I argue that basic intentional omissions are the behavioral outcomes of the fluent control of their agents’ intentions. When an intention to omit fluently controls for the right omission in the behavior of its bearer, the resulting omission is an intentional achievement performed because of the intention. The intention appropriately regulates the agent’s behavior so as to ensure the intended omission. This is why I propose to call this view the regulative theory of basic intentional omissions. Most of the work of this paper lies in spelling out the relation of fluent control. An important feature of the relation is that, in favorable circumstances, it may remain entirely counterfactual.

Intentions and commitments

The regulative view of basic intentional omissions (outlined above) is not just the theoretical refinement of our naïve picture of what we do. Human agents have the right psychological capacities to intentionally perform a non-trivial range of basic intentional omissions. This paper offers empirical support for an idea sketched in the work above: that distal intentions (and, in particular, intentions to omit) bias subsequent decision-making and strengthen the resolve of their bearers (in a way that underpins how these intentions control for omissions).

The mechanism is essential to the capacity of distal intentions to organize our behavior across time. An intention to A at some future time t should, in the meantime, prevent any behavior that would make A significantly harder or even outright impossible at t.

A variety of mechanisms plausibly underpin different aspects of this role under different circumstances. For example, intentions sometimes ensure that the agent understands the full consequences of the incompatible behavior, where she would otherwise not notice (until too late). Intentions thereby prevent absent-minded or mistaken behavior. But, in more challenging cases, agents count on their intentions to strengthen their resolve and help them fend off temptation. I call this the commitment role of intentions. Commitment is particularly important for intentions to omit.

In this paper, I argue that a key mechanism for intentions to perform their commitment role is their modulation of their bearer’s attention.

Decision and attention: more structures of agency

In further work, I explore how the attention modulation view of the commitment role of intentions may also apply to the contested role of normative and evaluative attitudes in human agency.

Building on the work of Michael Bratman (who regards intentions as structures of agency), I argue that the intertemporal and ontological coherence of a pattern of action requires attitudes other than intentions, but that a direct role of these attitudes in motivation would be unlikely to ensure coherence. In other words, there would seem to be additional structures of agency at the source of human actions (attitudes that play a non-motivational role in practical reasoning). The attention modulation model for the commitment role of intentions can help us understand them.

I am also interested in the potential role of attention in habits. (And, in the long run, in the potential metaethical consequences of the above work in moral psychology.)

Work on coordination and collective action

Vicarious actions and social teleology

(forthcoming, Canadian Journal of Philosophy)

Actions receive teleological descriptions and explanations in terms of reasons. In some circumstances, these descriptions and explanations might appeal not just to the agent’s own purpose and reasons, but also to the purposes and reasons of others in her social surroundings. Some actions have a social teleology. I illustrate this phenomenon and I propose a concept of vicarious action to account for it. An agent acts vicariously when she acts in response to the demand of another agent who knew that her demand was likely to succeed. I argue that vicariousness grounds the social teleology of the resulting actions.

A thin theory of collective actions

I am interested in working further on a (very) thin theory of collective action, to cover all instances of planned coordination. Philosophers have paid a lot of attention to robust forms of collective agency, most prominently the shared actions of those who intend together, or the actions of structured groups such as corporations. They have not had much to say about less structured or less integrated forms of collective actions, such as the coordinated behavior of agents who nonetheless do not trust each other, or lack the intention to further the collective project — for example because they act under duress. My project is to explore the common denominator among these very different forms of collective agency — building upon my work on vicarious actions with an eye to multi-agent planning. A particular area of application I am interested in concerns the actions of groups of animals, or of mixed groups of humans and other animals.

Work in political philosophy

Self-ownership on the market

What justifies the power of a legitimate political community to tax its members, under what conditions, and within what limits? I explore a new argument to answer these questions (with a particular focus on the taxation of labor income). The argument answers what I see as a resilient challenge to the permissibility of the taxation of labor income: the claims of self-ownership one has over the products of one’s work and time. Rather than a debunking of such claims, I propose an antidote: I argue that voluntary participation in market transactions entail the acceptance of terms of exchange beyond the control of the participants, and therefore the acceptance of taxes on market transactions (should there be any). To attempt to leverage self-ownership against the taxation of market transactions is to misunderstand the nature of price-making markets and to claim too much control for individual participants. The view has multiple advantages in explaining our reluctance to condone taxation and other state interventions outside of market contexts and/or where individuals have not chosen to enter a market.